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Jewelry Education


Pearls are reputed to symbolize everything from virtue to chastity, purity and wisdom. Mystical healing powers have also been attributed to them. It is believed that Roman women slept with their pearls to sweeten dreams, and it was also during these times that they embroidered them into their clothing and upholstery. Ancient Asian cultures even used them to cure ailments and disease. Europeans believed that whole or powdered pearl, if swallowed, could cure matters of the heart and mind, as well as bolstering nerves, and pearls were seen as a sign of power, wealth and distinction.

Pearls are the result of an incredible natural process that occurs within an oyster's shell, in which some kind of irritant is introduced into the oyster's shell. In response to the invasion as a means of self-preservation, the oyster emits a chemical that coats the object with nacre, a smooth, crystalline substance that surrounds the object and forms layers to protect the oyster's inner tissue (called the mantle) from further irritation. The result of this process reveals a beautifully luminescent gem that we know as a pearl.

Traditionally, the only way to bring these pearls to the surface is by diving for the oysters, opening the shells, and removing the pearl from the shell, if there was one present in all. The problem with this process, is that many of the divers are seriously injured or perish in the attempt to retrieve the pearls, and many of the oysters are destroyed, whether or not a pearl is present.

Because of the intense demand for pearls, most oyster beds were bought to the brink of extinction! In the case where a pearl is produced by chance from a grain of sand or coral, the pearl is deemed a natural pearl. In rare cases, natural pearls are found in very old jewelry and fetch large sums of money. Their natural origin can be confirmed by taking an x-ray of the nucleus of the pearl.

In the early part of the twentieth century, a pearl farmer, by the name of Kichimatsu Mikimoto, developed a method to assist the oysters. He learned that by removing the oysters from the water, implanting one or several irritants (cut from pieces of a Mississippi River mollusk's outer shell), man can induce the oyster's secretion that produce layers of nacre. Then the oysters are replaced in cages and suspended them from rafts, where they hang until they are harvested. This process allows pearl manufacturers to mass-produce pearls in larger quantities than were readily available before. When man aides the production process in this way, pearls are considered cultured pearls.

Because pearls are organic in nature, they are effected by climatic conditions surrounding their environment, such as the saline content, water temperature, pollutants, etc. In Japan, where the water is cold, the growing cycle usually takes five to seven years. In the South Pacific, where water is much warmer, the growth period is much shorter. In freshwater beds the cycle is usually three to five years. Generally, the longer the pearl grows, the larger and more lustrous it gets.

Virtually all pearls sold today are cultured pearls. The largest numbers of pearls are harvested from China, Japan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, the South Pacific, Australia, and the Red Sea.

Because of the iridescent quality of the shell interior, the oyster shell is cut, shaped to a form, polished, and placed as an ornament on a piece of jewelry or loose strand. This is known as mother-of-pearl, and is derived for the oyster shell itself. It is available in a variety of colors, but is generally variations of white or gray.